China: Reeducation Through Horror

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Bettmann/Corbis/AP Images
A Chinese man accused of being a ‘landlord’ facing a People’s Tribunal just before being executed, Guangdong, China, July 1952

Here are two snippets from a Chinese Communist journal called People’s China, published in August 1956:

In 1956, despite the worst natural calamities in scores of years, China’s peasants, newly organized in co-operatives on a nation-wide scale, produced 2,740 million Yuan’s worth more farm products than in 1955, an increase greater than the average annual increase in the previous three years….
The total floorspace, either completed or in construction in the period 1949–1952 was 85,752,000 sq. ft., 160% again as much as that of all the buildings erected in the entire half century before Liberation (which was 33,048,00 sq. ft.)….

And so on. The tone, typical of all such publications, of which China Reconstructs was perhaps the best known, is defensive, as though the new regime needed to boast of every stupendous achievement and “bumper harvest” to be taken seriously, and, in line with the Marxist tradition, it is also pseudoscientific. Progress had to be measured precisely in percentages and square feet. And progress under communism could only accelerate, usually in great leaps.

The scholar of modern China Frank Dikötter seeks to dismiss all this. If the official line in China today is that Chairman Mao’s legacy was 70 percent good and 30 percent bad, Dikötter’s view is that it was pretty much 100 percent bad. In his dogged attempt to make his case, Dikötter is just as addicted to statistics as the Party hacks whose myths he wants to demolish. Since his statistics are not about progress but about death and destruction, they make grim reading:

By the beginning of 1948, when the pressure abated, some 160 million people were under communist control. On paper the party determined that at least 10 percent of the population were “landlords” or “rich peasants.”… The statistical evidence is woefully inadequate, but by a rough approximation between 500,000 and a million people were killed or driven to suicide.
By the end of 1951, close to two million people had been murdered….
From July 1951 to the ceasefire on 27 July 1953 millions of soldiers and civilians died. China sent some 3 million men to the front [in the Korean War], of whom an estimated 400,000 died.

And as for progress:

Famine stalked large swathes of the countryside in 1953. In the spring, 3 million people in Shandong went hungry. Five million people were destitute in Henan, close to 7 million people in Hubei and another 7 million in Anhui.

I have no doubt that Dikötter’s statistics are more accurate than those printed in People’s China. And his litany of atrocities, ranging from the public lynchings of so-called landlords to the brutal oppression of intellectuals after the “Hundred Flowers Campaign” in 1956, rings true, even if it does get a little wearisome to read …

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